The New York Rangers fought to earn their place in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning and will play Game 5 tonight at Madison Square Garden. The series is knotted at 2-2, and the Rangers will rely on their home-ice advantage to eliminate the Lightning. Though the Rangers face perpetual struggles on the road and vice versa for the Lightning this series, the Rangers can technically advance to the Stanely Cup Final without having to win a road game.
Yet, with the lethal Colorado Avalanche looming on the sidelines, the Rangers cannot rely on this – should they advance. Especially with injuries piling up, New York has dug themselves into yet another hole by not adding to their 2-0 series lead. Their hot start can be attributed to a cocktail of factors, but home ice was a significant one.
Yet, the Lightning perenially find a way to turn up the heat in the postseason. Regardless of how rusty the away team has looked so far, it is easy to see how Tampa Bay mowed down opponents to win back-to-back Cups. As cliche as it sounds, if the Rangers play their game right, they can beat any team, but there lies the challenge.
“I don’t think we expected to walk in here and blow the doors off the thing. This is competitive hockey. This is a really good team that we’re playing, and these are going to be hard games,” said Jacob Trouba after Tampa Bay tied the series. He also acknowledged that despite recent injuries to centermen Filip Chytil and Ryan Strome, almost every player is “banged up.” Having to compete while teammates are out with injury is inevitable, and necessary to succeed. The players know that, but it is yet another thing to add to the checklist.
Despite being three rounds deep, the young Rangers still have many things to work on, and several themes coming back to haunt them. They have seven road losses and only two road wins for a 10-8 postseason record. Even if the Rangers take the lead after tonight’s game, Tampa has been untenable at home, and although there is not much benefit to worrying about Game 6 already, it is a valid concern.
Games 3 and 4 in Tampa Bay
The Rangers did not make it easy for themselves as they looked sloppy and struggled to score at even strength – partially thanks to an opportunistic Tampa Bay team (especially on home ice) and also due to the Blueshirts’ tendency to be unreliable road performers. The Rangers forced both previous series to Game 7 and they suffered specific struggles in each round.
The first away game for the Rangers was a 2-3 loss sealed by a late game-winning goal by Ondrej Palat. The Rangers looked flat and nothing like themselves compared to the first two wins. Unfortunately, the ending seemed like kismet; the Rangers were lucky to be within such close reach of a win given how unthreatening they played.
The Rangers had ample opportunities but they gave up too many to the Bolts. The Blueshirts even took the early lead with a Mika Zibanejad power-play goal. Though they blew a lead in Game 3, the real red flag was their inability to score at five-on-five. Their second goal of the game was also on the power play. Generated by Zibanejad and finished by Chris Kreider, the team secured a 2-0 lead at the halfway point.
The Lightning are equally capable of scoring on the power play too. Tampa Bay made it 2-1 after a series of cross-ice passes that forced goaltender Igor Shesterkin to move from post to post. They then tied it in the third with another power-play goal. The Rangers managed to contain some of the Lightning’s stars, like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, but this was far from the case in Game 3, both of whom, scored.
Game 4 was a 1-4 defeat, which marked two pitiful performances in a row for New York. This time, Vezina finalist, Shesterkin, had little help and was exposed as the last line of defense. Things went downhill quickly for the Blueshirts. The Lightning gained an early one-goal lead, but that was enough to force Shesterkin rather frantic, a disposition he does not display often.
After Tampa’s second goal, it became clear which team would emerge as the victor. Kucherov was allowed prime ice as he entered the slot and shot it right past Shesterkin. It was certainly a tough game from the defense and offense’s perspectives as the Rangers flirted with a shutout until Artemi Panarin was able to squeak one by Andrei Vasilevskiy, but it was already 1-3 in the third frame. A turnover led to the fourth and final goal that game.
Beating Tampa Bay and Meeting the Avalanche
The phrase “easier said than done” could not be more applicable here as the Blueshirts already have a lengthy “to do” list. Both offensively and defensively, many approaches and systems need to be re-evaluated. Home ice should provide some sort of relief with nerves, but this is a major opportunity for both teams – either the Rangers can nab the lead again, or the Lightning can claim the series’ first away win.
Keeping bodies in front of Vasilevskiy is key. An excellent example of success when doing this was Zibanejad’s Game 3 power-play goal. Thanks to a screen along with Kreider, who lingered in front, Zibanejad was able to score using his famous one-timer release. This shows the Rangers already possess an awareness of how to suppress Tampa but they often stray from the basics. Allowing each player to utilize his unique skill set is what helped the Rangers get into the postseason, to begin with.
Unfortunately, the list of other basics is not so basic, nor is it brief. Tampa is consistently deploying a much stronger forecheck than the Rangers, not only are the Rangers not out-pressuring Tampa, they aren’t even able to match the forecheck. While coach Gerard Gallant preaches a calm attitude going into tonight’s game, they cannot expect to win by performing that way. Urgency is not something the Rangers illustrated on the road and the team often made a series of head-scratching mistakes. The stakes are certainly higher, but the team is not exactly playing with this acknowledgment.
Cleaning up their game, applying constant pressure, keeping up their awareness, and not relying on power-play chances is huge for Game 5 success tonight. Going forward, they desperately need to find their spark on the road too. Some players found individual success and others struggled, at the end of it all, this is a team sport and the Rangers will need to come out the gate that way.
Forward Tyler Motte echoes the importance of zone pressure, getting the puck near Tampa’s net, and staying quick on their feet. “I just think whether it’s playing on the road with different matchups or things, we just haven’t been able to get to that as much as we would like to. I think that’s a big game-changer for us,” he said. The team will have to make every effort to not let road ice impact their game, especially as an increase in physicality and tempers will likely climb.
The young team is confident in their game and comfortable playing in front of the home crowd but they have limited time to make it work on the road. The Rangers play better with their backs against the wall, which was displayed in the first two series, but the circumstances are different against this team. One thing is for sure, if the Rangers leave for Tampa with another win, figuring out their game on the road may be a little easier on their time crunch.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.